Bob kagan’s essay, “Power and Weakness,” was and remains brilliant. Funny and illuminating, it crystallized a set of thinking at a critical moment in history. And it stands the test of time: It still illuminates fundamental impulses in Europe and America.
The world has changed substantially since 2002. And the reflection of these fundamental impulses has changed as well. Europe’s post-modern self-absorption was an indulgence in 2002; now in 2012 Europe’s self-absorption is fully warranted and indeed a vital U.S. interest. We cheer on as Europe seeks to save itself, lest it bring down the entire “old world” global economy.
Meanwhile, the United States’ muscular assertions of 2002 have been replaced by retrenchment on the left and near neo-isolationism on the far right — causing justified worry among European allies. The description of a muscular, assertive U.S. foreign policy still attracts many in the U.S. foreign policy elite — but in an era of deficits, recession, and war fatigue, they lack broad voter support and the ability to assert their worldview.
Neither situation is better.
Yet despite the changes, Kagan’s fundamental conclusion also remains the right one for today. The United States and Europe share common values, and need to work together to protect and advance those values in the world. We need to understand our differences, which do exist, but we must also get beyond them to make the world a better and safer place.
The principal objection I had to Kagan’s article in 2002 was that it provided a static snapshot. While the analysis was spot-on, there was no reason to assume that things would stay the way they were. I believed that with good leadership it wouldn’t take much for Europeans to combine hard and soft power more effectively, and to be strong allies with the United States. They had done it before. And it wouldn’t take much for the United States to work together with Europe, as it had before, convincing others and building support, rather than plowing ahead alone, and with a heavy reliance on military might.
Things did indeed change: But little did I know that instead of good leadership righting the course, we would see bad leadership making things worse. As Europe grapples with its all-encompassing debt crisis and the U.S. ratchets down in Europe and pivots toward Asia, the transatlantic alliance is arguably in substantially worse shape today than it was when Kagan first wrote his article.
It still remains the task of good leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic, to return the relationship from one of cooperation as necessary to one of strategic alliance out of shared values and purpose.
9/11 and Afghanistan
I remember first reading Kagan’s essay as a penultimate draft circulating around the National Security Council in the late Spring of 2002. It created quite a buzz: a combination of locker room giddiness for some, and an acknowledgement of the substance, combined with uneasy foreboding, among others.
Before going further, it is important to recreate the context. I was serving as director for nato and Western Europe. The allies were my beat. It was the time after 9/11 and before the war in Iraq. It was a time when the United States felt extraordinarily vulnerable, having been attacked by terrorists using airplanes as missiles, and now identifying the single greatest threat to the nation’s security as terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.
It was a time after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, but did so without building on nato’s decision to invoke its Article 5 commitment to collective defense for the first time in history. The allies “could not help us” — or so we reasoned — because the U.S. had to rely on extraordinary capacities: special forces on horseback integrating seamlessly with satellite communications and precision guided bombs and missiles delivered from tens of thousands of vertical feet and many hundreds of horizontal miles away.1
While true that none of our Allies — or perhaps only the uk — could keep up with such a technological feat in Afghanistan, it was a utilitarian argument that missed the larger political point: that acting together as a values-based transatlantic community, acting together as friends, means far more than the number and types of weapons a given country could bring to the table. Sometimes the psychology of a conflict is more important than the numbers.
As Kagan pointed out, the allies were probably more worried about the U.S. reaction to terrorism (and the potential launch of a war in Iraq) than they were worried about the terrorism and wmd usage itself. We could have assuaged that worry by being more inclusive.
New kid on the block
Even before 9/11, however, European attitudes about the United States under President Bush were taking shape. I am convinced that French President Jacques Chirac, who saw himself as both pro-American and of an older and more refined generation, always saw President Bush as something of an upstart. After all, Chirac was of the same generation as President George H.W. Bush, and knew him quite well. Chirac concluded every phone call with the younger Bush: “Give my regards to your father.” Knowing the French, that is a genuine kindness, but it also serves to lay down a subtle marker about seniority in the relationship.
During President Bush’s first visit to Europe, in June 2001, he had a scheduled meeting and luncheon with nato allies in Brussels. In between the meeting and lunch, Bush slipped in a courtesy call with then Secretary General Lord Robertson. But Chirac, feeling it an insult to have to delay lunch for a late-arriving newcomer, convened the luncheon on his own — with neither Bush nor Robertson, the host, present.
The nato meeting in Brussels then shifted to the U.S.-eu Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which European leader after European leader took turns blasting the United States (and President Bush in particular) for removing the U.S. signature from the Kyoto Treaty on climate change. No matter that President Clinton had previously decided not to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. (And that now, eleven years later under President Obama, the Kyoto framework is even less alive than in 2001.)
Contrast this with the rapturous reception President Bush received — on that same trip — when he visited Poland and set out a vision of Europe where freedom was guaranteed, “from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”
Nothing lasts like a first impression, and these early European attitudes and actions of 2001 and 2002 left a strong one indeed. Western Europe was anti-American, pacifist, socialist, passé. Central Europe was freedom-loving and pro-American.
Likewise, the first year of the Bush administration left a lasting impression on Europe. Un-signing the Kyoto Treaty, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, launching the global war on terror, and invading Afghanistan all contributed to an impression of a unilateralist, militarist United States.
On to Baghdad
Then came the lead-up to Iraq. Especially in hindsight, it is hard to separate the thrust of Kagan’s argument about power and weakness from the period before the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.
In 2002, U.S., uk, French, and German intelligence were of a single assessment that Iraq was concealing a wmd program. The only debate was what to do about it. Europeans — already wary of U.S. militarism — wanted to avoid conflict and use the un inspection regime to the maximum extent possible; the U.S., suspicious of the European penchant for legalisms over results, wanted to create and force a deadline on Iraq so that, if necessary, preventive action could be taken before wmd might actually be used.
Ex post facto arguments that the U.S. or (as is often asserted in Britain) Tony Blair lied about wmd in Iraq are simply not borne out by the facts. The U.S., uk, and others were wrong — but they didn’t lie.
President Bush had vowed never to allow a second major terrorist attack on the United States. The greatest fear at the time was that terrorists could acquire wmd — perhaps from a country such as Iraq — and use that in attacking the United States. It is impossible to overstate the genuine level of concern at that time: I personally took part in efforts to plan for the possibility of a nuclear or biological weapon detonation in Washington. In this atmosphere, the sense that war in Iraq might be necessary — though no final decisions had been made — was a part of U.S. thinking. Some allies, such as the uk, Spain, and Poland, were sympathetic to U.S. views, while many others in Europe thought that the United States was driving down a reckless, military path.
At the same time some European allies’ rejection of the prospect of an invasion, and indeed European calls for legal solutions, such as more iaea inspections and nonauthorizing un resolutions, sounded to some in the U.S. like naïve appeasement (though others were sympathetic to these European views).
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was facing an extremely tough reelection bid in Germany in 2002. He told President Bush early that year that if the U.S. needed to take action in Iraq, Germany might not provide outright support, but it would understand. He repeated the same during President Bush’s visit to Berlin in May 2002. But by the summer, Schröder would turn — burnishing his reelection campaign by standing up to the United States generally and President Bush in particular. It worked.
Thus by the summer of 2002, the United States had not yet made a decision about invading Iraq, but attitudes about Europe — and European attitudes about the United States — had already taken shape.
Sheriff and saloonkeeper
It was against this backdrop that Kagan’s essay appeared on computer screens at the nsc. There were many wonderful images — the United States is from Mars and Europe from Venus, for example. But there was one image that I remember even ten years later. This was the image of the United States as sheriff, taking risks, gunslinging, and acting alone if necessary to keep the peace — and the image of Europe as the saloonkeeper, who keeps his head down, benefits from the imposition of law and order, and also benefits from the commerce of villain and sheriff alike. And the last thing a saloonkeeper wants is a shoot-out.
This kind of imagery set commentators atwitter on both sides of the Atlantic. It provided not only a summary of the transatlantic attitudes that had developed by mid-2002 but gave them a color, a humor, and an intellectual foundation that captured imaginations. In America, it provided a welcome justification for the U.S. acting alone to take on challenges while Europe demurred. In Europe, it was taken as affirmation that Europe’s suspicions about U.S. military unilateralism were indeed well-founded. It was playing to the crowds, but also giving the crowds a rationale for acting the way they wanted to act anyway.
And yet by crystallizing two opposing sets of thinking in the debate — an American stereotype and a European one — Kagan’s essay brought out a deeper set of arguments that are still relevant today.
Hard and soft power
If one objection to Kagan’s article was that good leadership could change things, a second objection was that it exaggerated the degree to which the U.S. did not practice soft power and Europe did not practice hard power. Indeed, both sides do both: The United States had enormous soft power, from cnn to pop music to the biggest assistance budget in the world, and Europe indeed exercised hard power, from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan and the Mediterranean. I felt that Kagan’s observation was right, but perhaps the scale was not.
For example, there had often been suggestions that the U.S. and Europe should have a division of labor, with the U.S. taking on the combat roles and the Europeans taking on board the civil-military post-conflict roles. But these suggestions were most often rejected by Europeans and Americans alike as breaking the fundamental rules of shared risk and responsibility. It would be too easy for Europe to “blame” America for wars and then play martyr in executing the cleanup. And it was undesirable for the U.S. to do the heavy lifting alone. Both sides had to be equally committed from the outset.
Just as with transatlantic leadership — which got worse over time rather than better — so too with divisions over hard and soft power. In Afghanistan, we were faced with the imposition of caveats on deployed forces — with bitter complaints from allies in combat zones (e.g., the Netherlands and Canada) against those who refused to take part in combat (e.g., Germany and Spain). We defined a “comprehensive approach” combining civil and military roles, but never managed to fully resource the civilian side.
In Libya, only eight out of 28 allies took part in the air operation, and even fewer accepted bombing missions. Unlike in Afghanistan, the U.S. deliberately stood back from leadership, and sharply limited its own role in the attack operations after the first week. nato as a whole agreed only to a “soft” role of protecting civilians for its mission, when the “hard” role of regime change is eventually what was required and carried out by a small coalition outside the formal nato process. In Kosovo, nato was willing to act without a formal un mandate; but in Libya, nato would only agree to undertake what the un had already approved.
Europe is now massively cutting its defense budgets — i.e., its capacity for hard power. The U.S. made some efforts over the past decade to boost civilian capacities, but it increased defense spending to cover operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by even more. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in his farewell remarks to nato that ten years ago, the United States accounted for 50 percent of nato defense spending. Now it accounts for 75 percent. Even though the U.S. is now cutting its defense budget, that 75 percent ratio is likely to get bigger as Europe cuts even more.
Rather than overcoming the hard-power/soft-power problem, we are in fact diverging still further.
The world didn’t stand still
A further issue that is painfully clear today — but was less imagined back in 2002 — is just how much the world itself would change over 10 years.
- China has risen faster than expected.
- Several other developing economies have also established a larger-than-anticipated role on the world stage.
- Iran is close to obtaining a nuclear weapon.
- Iraq and Afghanistan have both proved to be daunting and persistent problems, with far greater ripple effects on Islamist extremism, than anticipated in 2002
- Russia moved from weak democracy in then-President Putin’s early tenure to renewed authoritarianism today.
- The financial crisis of 2008–2009 took a massive toll on the U.S. economy, and its successor crisis in Europe has hurt European budgets, and confidence in Europe itself, even more. Whereas Kagan suggested that Europe would pay for social programs over defense, today it can afford neither.
- All of these trends have given rise to new “isms” that pose an ideological challenge to the principles of market democracy themselves: from violent extremism to authoritarian capitalism to neo-mercantilism.
In this very different world of 2012, raw, Manichaean power plays an even greater role in driving events than it seemed to in 2002. Back in 2002, Kagan argued quite correctly that Europe’s preferred means of solving problems through law and negotiation was limited in application mainly to Europe itself. With the phenomenal spread of economic, political, and military power throughout the world — and especially its use by those outside of democratic governments — the effectiveness of the European approach of negotiation and law has diminished even further.
Dictators — whether Qaddafi or Assad — used force to repress their populations and could only be met with countervailing force. Iran is close to building a nuclear weapon and has made feints at using its navy to close the Straits of Hormuz, un resolutions and sanctions notwithstanding. The Taliban has continued fighting and has grown stronger, with support from elements in Pakistan, even as we talk of opening negotiations in Doha. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq has led to increased risks of sectarian warfare, rather than stabilizing peace. Rival factions continue to fight in Sudan and Central Africa. Pirates have expanded activities off the horn of Africa. China is rapidly investing in its military capacities. Russia has invested in renewing its military capabilities, invaded Georgia in 2008, and still occupies 20 percent of that country.
In addition, global political and security challenges place demands on the United States far more than on Europe, even more so than in 2002. The United States remains the principal target of other nations’ and groups’ policies and aspirations in ways that Europe is not. The U.S. still fights a global war on terror, is the linchpin in efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program (and Israel’s possible intervention), is the key balance to China’s rising military power, has no choice but to lead the way on Afghanistan, is the world’s leading cyber-power, and is the world’s critical defender of global common spaces, whether sea lanes, space, or cyberspace.
In none of these areas does the world — or Europe itself — look first to Europe to manage these issues. But they do look to America.
All this gives the United States a different kind of responsibility for defending itself and addressing challenges in the world. Europe can afford to pick and choose the issues it will tackle and which means it will use in doing so. The United States is front and center whether it likes it or not. Kagan made this point in his original essay, and the trend has only continued.
Keeping the faith: Values still matter
To sum it up, when comparing today’s world with the world that existed in 2002, leadership is worse, the United States and Europe have diverged further on hard and soft power, and power is itself an even greater factor in global affairs. Likewise, the solutions that were relevant back in 2002 — and were never really implemented — are more needed today than ever.
First, as Kagan noted, the United States and Europe need to communicate and understand each other better —this would lead to better common strategies. One would think from reading the newspapers and blogs that as Europe declines and America looks toward Asia, the transatlantic relationship simply counts for less and less.
Yet this could not be farther from the truth. The United States and Europe share common values and a common civilization. We are each other’s largest economic partners, and indeed our economies are enormously intertwined. We have the same liberal, international economic perspective on the global economy (as compared with China, or India, or others). We see the same challenges in the world, and are each other’s best partners in dealing with them.
Second, Europe needs to get a handle on its internal challenges so that it can do a more credible job addressing external ones. Europe still has enormous potential. It has over half a billion inhabitants, with per capita gdp among the highest in the world. It is a major contributor to global peacekeeping and development. It is an anchor of democratic values and a liberal international economic order.
But the more Europe is consumed with its internal crises — debt, the Eurozone, immigration, failing governments (e.g., a yearlong caretaker government in Brussels, or semi-imposed technocratic governments replacing elected ones in Greece and Italy), heavy eu bureaucracy, etc. — the less attention and resources it devotes to the rest of the world. A weak Europe makes for a weak transatlantic alliance, just when such an alliance is most needed.
To put it pointedly: Europe needs to invest more in security and defense capability, increase its contributions to managing global security challenges (both in civilian and military ways), and stand more firmly for its own core values — from freedom and democracy to free markets and free trade — in addressing today’s global trials. And it needs to see the United States as its indispensable partner in these efforts. But for this to occur, Europe needs to deal with its own internal problems.
Third, not unlike Europe, the United States needs to get a handle on its own budgetary and economic problems, so it can again lead a global strategy aimed at the spread of freedom, democracy, prosperity, justice, and security. The current mood in the United States tends toward retrenchment. Because of joblessness, a weak economy, and fatigue with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror, we are cutting all our budgets, closing down military operations, reducing the defense budget and size of the armed forces, slowing the pursuit of free trade agreements, and so forth.
Yet this overlooks America’s many strengths and direct national interests. Despite our difficulties, the United States has the biggest economy in the world, the biggest defense establishment in the world, and the largest set of complex interests in the world. Our national well-being depends crucially upon the advance of security, freedom, and prosperity throughout the world.
This mood to retrench also overlooks the unique role played by the United States in the world. Nations all over the world depend on the United States to act as an honest broker, maintaining stability and balancing out worrying regional actors. The United States still carries great moral force based on our democracy and justice at home. We remain the beacon for millions who seek to immigrate to our shores. The United States is uniquely able to rally alliances and shape the global security environment in ways no one else can. We have the ability to multiply our strengths by being joined by the political, psychological, moral, economic, and military contributions of others. But like Europe, the United States needs to take care of its internal problems, in order to be able to step up to external ones.
Fourth, and related to this, the United States needs to see Europe as part of a global strategy, rather than a relic of the past, to be shed as America moves on to an Asian strategy. True: Asia is new and dynamic. But Europe is big and important, and the Greater Middle East is the source of some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities on the planet. A great power should not “pivot” from wars in the Middle East and Asia, or from old allies in Europe, to new frontiers in the Pacific. Rather, we need to see an integrated whole, where old allies are relevant even for new challenges, and where wars of necessity demand the most integrated global coalitions ever.
Fifth, and finally, it all comes down to values. The real challenge the United States and Europe must face is not how to manage each individual crisis of today — but rather how we can together ensure that fifteen or twenty years from now the global political, economic, and security environment will be good for societies that share our democratic values.
That was the genius of the post-World War II order that emerged with Bretton Woods, the United Nations, nato, the European Coal and Steel Community, and so on. It set up an international order that was designed to protect and advance freedom, democracy, market economy, the rule of law, and human rights. That system performed so well that it is now being overwhelmed by the forces of freedom it unleashed.
The United States and Europe should now be leading the way in defining an international order for the future — one that fully enfranchises emerging regions and powers while enlisting their support in reinforcing the core democratic values and liberal international economic order that have brought us this far. It can be done, but — as in 2002 — it means overcoming our tendencies toward playing the roles of Mars and Venus, and instead putting our efforts together in common purpose.
1. It took until August 2003 for nato to shoulder any role in Afghanistan, taking over from the United Nations the isaf mission of protecting Kabul. While nato is now facing unprecedented challenges during the Obama administration — as the U.S. “leads from behind” and “pivots” toward Asia, and Europe has neither the will nor means to invest in its own defense — one can argue that it was this decision in 2001 to put nato’s Article 5 decision to one side that began the decline of nato we are experiencing today.